‘Trampoline of Death’ a Misnomer: The long road from Macoa to Pasto

Would you risk the ‘Trampoline of Death’ with your children?

Questioning my fitness as a parent that evening, I had to ask Francois one more time about the route we were considering for the next morning. My overwhelming need to ask again cracked my hard-earned, yet fragile, gypsy-mom persona. My anxious, hypervigilant maternal I-can’t-sleep-the-night-before-a-travel-day nature was decidedly visible through my cracked veneer.

But I couldn’t help it. I was a mother. Words like ‘FARC’ and ‘acts of terrorism’ mingled in my travel-weary head, jostling for attention with tales of mountain buses careening off cliffs or head-on collisions with fuel tanker rigs.  My children swung on the hammocks nearby. Nodding in their direction, this French ex-pat glanced back at me nonchalantly. He paired a single lazy eyebrow raise with that Parisian lip ‘pfew.’ He summarily dismissed all my anxieties. It was as if I questioned the structural soundness of the Eiffel Tower.

Francois, of Casa de Francois in San Agustin, affirmed that both the bus and the road were safe. He dismissively promised that the driver would proceed cautiously. As the three of us sat around the rough-hewn patio table, my husband voiced his support of our plans by adding his own well-worn travel adage, picked up in the back of a truck in Africa, “The bus driver doesn’t want to die.”

Francois had raised his children in this remote town in the southwestern corner of Colombia, choosing nearly 20 years ago to put down roots in San Agustin. He had no concerns about the route that would wind us from Pitalito through Macoa to Pasto, positioning us to safely make a daytime border crossing into Ecuador. His only injunction was to travel during the day.

Known as the Trampolin del Meurte, this itinerary had a few upsides, aside from the obvious (and irreversible) downside. The greatest benefit was that the Trampoline of Death would save us hours of travel time, preventing us from backtracking to Popayan. We hated backtracking.

As with all decisions, there was a self-serving side to choosing the road less traveled. This route propped up our ‘intrepid traveler’ identity. It wasn’t just the name that was risky. Casually dropping the words ‘Trampolin del Meurte’ into conversation immediately identified us as roadworthy adventure travelers, separating us from those breezing through with a week or two on a fixed itinerary, and a hired driver. Hardened travelers were not just a little ambivalent about this road. In the last two years, there were postings  unequivocally warning against this route on respectable web discussion forums including the Lonely Planet.

That evening as I went through my night regimen, the darkness felt menacing. I checked the door to our handsome cob cottage, tripping over our packs as they waited in a silent tidy pile. I wished that their zipped-up, cinched-closed confidence could convince me we were doing the right thing. I double checked that all cell phones were charging. Finding that only the top outlet worked, I switched out devices to ensure all would be fully charged by morning. As we had learned, the presence of an outlet did not indicate electricity.

I tried to quiet my racing thoughts. I knew that the clock had begun its fresh progression through single digits. I thought over the conversations, blog postings, and maps. We had consciously discarded warnings older than six months. All reports indicated that in the last twelve months, the FARC had been respecting the ceasefire. Nonetheless, the road was still heavily guarded as the memory of incidents was lingering.

Weighing this information, I prioritized my worries. I released the mind drama pertaining to hold-ups and rogue roadblocks and kidnappings. My anxieties shifted to bus accidents.  In the silent terror of my imagination, I mentally rehearsed the words I would murmur into my children’s ears as our bus miscalculated a corner and flew off a steep cliff.

I focused on the familiar night rustlings of my family and the rural murmurings beyond our thin walls felt. I matched my breathing to the peaceful exhales of the children, their curled bodies now a tangle of limbs and blankets and sheets. I held myself back from nudging into one for their twin beds. It was a futile hope that their peaceful slumber would overtake my body simply through osmosis.  And at 10 and 12, I would most certainly hear complaints the following morning if I accidentally woke a child as I nestled in.

I wavered on the edge of sleep, reminding myself again how we had thoroughly plumbed the knowledge of both the local population and of other travelers. Taking this road positioned us to make it to Pasto where we could easily get to the border town of Ipiales.  It was a clear shot from Ipiales to the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. If all connections went without a hitch, this travel scenario played out during daylight hours.

And travel in Colombia was decidedly a daytime activity. It was well-established that even though FARC had been laying low as of recent, there were still rogues and ruffians out there ready to stir up trouble–generally mid to late afternoon trouble. Apparently such aforementioned would-be troublemakers had strong inclinations towards dawn torpidity.  An earlier commencement of travel translated into less risk.

The morning’s activity were brief.  We stashed our wet toothbrushes and laced our sneakers. Hoisting my daughter’s pack on to her shoulders, I tightened the hip harness to my own. The four of us made a lumpy trail of gore-tex and canvas as we snaked our way through the damp gray dawn.

It was at that moment that the lingering uneasiness clarified in my mind: Francois had a slightly skewed definition of speed. ‘Slow’ and ‘safe’ are both relative concepts when related to Colombian bus drivers and mountain roads. And Francois was no-doubt desensitized after living in Colombia for many years. No wonder his rejection of my concerns didn’t assuage my anxiety. The Macoa-Pasto road had not earned its infamous title from tourists. It was named by the Colombians themselves.

It felt too early to verbalize my epiphany. We made our way silently into town.

By 7:30 AM, we tossed our luggage on the roof and packed ourselves into the back of a local collectivo.

I’m often asked how we secure these rides.  In this case, we simply showed up. Finding the right corner, we loitered around. In most instances though, we found it was best to ask about departing buses upon arrival, even before we left the bus station. We also depended heavily on the recent information from other travelers, both from face-to-face conversations and info posted online.

But San Agustin was a speck of a town a bit off the Gringo trail. There were only a handful of paved streets. There was no bus station. So we started our transport inquiries at the guest house, asking a pair of French women where they were headed…and how they got here. We made small talk at the market to confirm transport details with locals. We also checked in with the clerk at the tienda where we bought water and asked the street vendor selling meat sticks: “How do we get to Pitalito?  What’s the price?” We got a rough idea about the price–both the Gringo price and the local price. Of course “we” is a loose term. The kids navigated these conversations with their fluent and convincingly Central American Spanish.

In large towns more familiar with tourists, such transport research proved more difficult to collect. Locals, especially those in the tourism industry, often insisted that there existed only one type of transport–the expensive tourist option. This  was common in large cities such as Cusco, Peru, where a savvy tourism industry funneled money into their community. The other factor was likely predictable assumptions related to the soft composition of tourists pulling rolling suitcases.  They’d have us convinced that we would be robbed by half the cab drivers in their city…and that public buses would add hours to our travel time. Of course, we were not so foolish as to discount the validity of such claims. Even though we thought of ourselves as travelers, not tourists, and wouldn’t be caught dead with a rolling suitcase, enough tourists had come through larger towns for locals to use fear, comfort, and fiscal flexibility to their benefit.

In this corner of Colombia, the locals did not present such a united commercial front. Tourism had been hindered as the US State Department had not lifted the decades-long travel ban. We were not at risk of being steered towards an expensive tourist van in San Agustin or an overpriced bus. There were no buses or tourist vans.

That morning, we’d done our homework. We showed up at the designated corner within an hour of departure. We stood around waiting. And we stood out. We were used to both.

Jorge and Dylan inquired about routes and destinations with the men. I made friends with the mothers through smiles, and then used Abigail as my voice to get a handle on rates and which trucks were good options. We reliably won over locals with the kids’ fluency. People were more than happy to help. In remote places like San Agustin, it was not unusual for someone to say that they had never spoken to an American child, much less one who spoke such perfect Spanish.  Sometimes we were asked to pose for a selfie with them.

We soon found ourselves bleary-eyed and perching gingerly on a bench seat, the kids dutifully watching the road behind us to be sure that no luggage ricocheted from the roof. We were a few station transfers away from the ‘Trampoline’ but the road was still rough. I wondered about the absence of bungee cords to secure our luggage to the roof.

Smiling, but tired, we were again finding ourselves in the back of a collectivo truck, this time bound for Pitalito. Though not sunny in the truck, the sunglasses were merely on to dim the general brightness in an attempt to make my head hurt less.

Smiling, but tired, we were on the way to Pitalito.

After an uneventful ride, we arrived into the bus station in Pitalito. We paused for a quick luggage (and head) count.

That’s when the usual bus station rigaramole started. As we clambered out of the back, we found ourselves poised directly in front of another collectivo truck. Our bags never hit the ground. Instead, the driver and his assistant presumptuously hoisted our backpacks from one roof to the next. “Direct ride! Leaving in five minutes!” echoed in our weary heads.

For a moment we stood there, stunned, staring helplessly at the road-beaten truck as it was claimed by our packs. I imagined the bumpy, shivering doom of the next five hours in the misery of an open-backed Toyota pickup. It epitomized all the scenarios I had rehearsed in the wee hours that morning.

The words, the hustlers, and the rush of the station coalesced. It felt familiar. Too familiar. I had heard it before, in every busy station, on every continent. Everyone’s ride was the most direct and the cheapest.  Vehicles were always ‘five minutes’ from leaving.

“Claim a seat on the last ride of the day!” the touts desperately warned. I always understood the immediacy even when the direct word translation escaped me.

Just before we agreed on a price, resigning ourselves to the next five hours of cold wet misery in the back of a pick-up, I woke from my complicity. I got on my toughest game face, tinged with a bit of cranky fatigue. All 5’1″ of me seemingly towered over the man standing on the truck rack, lashing down our luggage. I’d had enough. It had been a long night, an early morning, and a rough ride.  In fact, it had been a rough month.

I didn’t speak much Spanish, but no was understood in both languages.

If my refusal was in any way unclear, my defiant face spoke volumes. The bustle of men stopped and looked in my direction.

Honestly, I wanted to say more, a lot more. I would have tried to politely negotiate with the men, requesting a few more minutes in the station. I’d gently offer a smiling excuse about ducking into the station for bathrooms and food. We were traveling with children after all. Them we would explore other options.

But my Spanish was limited. I knew from experience that reacting verbally in such frustrating situations humiliated my kids and won me the title Loca americana mama. Escalating in volume and pitch, I’d create an unforgettable scene by going off in English to a bunch of Spanish speakers.

We had a sensitive family history in the area of such incidents. I promised the kids that I would try to spare them any future humiliation.  They were both privy to the Spanish murmurings of gawking on-lookers, behind us in line or in the seats across from us on the bus.

At that moment, I was gambling on the kids’ loyalty. I needed their help to find a new ride. If I kept my cool, holding up my end of the bargain, would the kids would back me up?  This was a time-sensitive travel day. I knew Jorge was generally pretty easy-going about discomfort. He would have been content to climb in the back of the truck and get on the road. We couldn’t wait for two hours in this station. We couldn’t risk being stranded. We had been sternly warned about traveling into the evening. What if this really was the only transport option for the day?

I turned my back on the rickety truck. I was swallowed up in the frenzy of the station. This Gyspy mom was done with bench seats and pick up trucks and rough suspension. I didn’t necessarily need an expensive tourist bus, but a dry place to stow luggage did not seem unreasonable.

Thankfully, the kids did follow. I called on that Latin energy we’d been soaking in for the last month. Jorge, never one to cause a scene, made awkward small talk with the hustling pick-up drivers. As much as I had abstained from verbal drama, it was still a tense moment. They had all just witnessed his mutinous wife and children defiantly march off.

Inside the station, the kids charmingly translated for me as we negotiated among the dozens of vehicles which were all heading in the right direction and leaving in the next hour or so.

After a full 8 hours of bouncing around in the back of a truck the previous day, I couldn't imagine another of it.

After a full 8 hours of bouncing around in the back of a truck the previous day, I couldn’t imagine another day.

Thirty minutes later, I reclined in an over-sized seat, in the ‘bulkhead’ 2-seat row of a new, spacious van. Our luggage was safely stowed inside the van and the kids were conveniently sitting in the row behind us. It actually felt a bit like those expensive tourist transports that I pretended not to like. I also pretended not to hear my husband, Jorge, the first time he admitted that I had done the right thing. He confessed to being annoyed at me for turning my back on him in the bus station. There was no question that it was unpleasant to be so directly defied by his wife in front of a bunch of Latin men. especially as he had been fine with the jalopy.

It was a win-win for us. Turns out, the same $5 that we were going to pay per ‘seat’ in the collectivo pick-up truck was buying us a comparatively luxurious ride in a van.

As is usually the case, there were a myriad of options--we just had to ask around a bit.

As is usually the case, there were a myriad of options–we just had to ask around a bit.

And just as my  husband repeated his appreciation for the second time, the skies opened up, commencing a three hour deluge. Again, I relished my rather non-effusive husband practically bubbling over with appreciation, envisioning what a disaster the day would have been huddled in the back of the open truck. We’d have been cranky, sore, and nauseous, in addition to cold and soggy, knowing we’d have nothing dry in our luggage when we arrived. We’d been there before, too.

Everyone was happy with the transport that the kids and I had secured.

Everyone was happy with the transport that the kids and I had secured.

Content and relieved, the road from Macoa to Pasto was uneventful. Needless to say, the carefully rehearsed words of comfort I planned to say as we plummeted to our death went unspoken. Strung together the previous night in a panic, I could barely remember what they were as I nodded off in the van listening to the rain pound the van’s roof.

Though our day was without incident, we did find that the ‘Trampoline of Death’ was somewhat of a misnomer. A more appropriate nickname would have been ‘The Slip ‘n Slide of Death.’ The road was riddled with mud slides and rock slides, rocky water crossings and guardrails askew after being dragged down the sheer cliff by collapsing road sections.

Rushing water from full waterfalls overtook the road in many places.

Rushing water from full waterfalls overtook the road in many places.

Though safe from the FARC violence, a risk as recently as a year ago, there was little that armed police and military presence could do to fight nature's power along the remote mountain road.

Though safe from the FARC violence, a risk as recently as a year ago, there was little that armed police and military presence could do to fight nature’s power along the remote mountain road.

Scenes of washed out roads and rock slides dotted the road more often than mile markers. There were dozens and dozens of rock piles and mangled guardrails.  Damage from rocks and mud piles spilled on to the road, so overwhelming and recent in many places that only a narrow single lane path had been dug through the heavy mud. Here and there, we passed a few dump trucks and bulldozers feebly working on their Sisyphean task.

Some earth moving equipment worked to clear the road, but much of the work was accomplished through small teams of men in yellow slickers, armed with shovels.

Some earth moving equipment worked to clear the road, but much of the work was accomplished through small teams of men in yellow slickers, armed with shovels.

Reflecting back on the experience, it was not the numerous curves and rough sections of unpaved mountain road or the fear of miscreants that should have occupied my nervous energy the night before our departure. We’d survived much worse on local day trips in Colombia. My real concern should have been getting buried in a mudslide or slipping to our death from a collapsed road.  Even as I write this, it still gives me flutters of anxiety when I think about our choice to take that route. Losing a day of travel by backtracking to Popayan no longer felt like an untenable option.

Sometimes a picture says it all.  The road was unbelievable some places.

Sometimes a picture says it all. The road was unbelievable some places.

We ended up arriving after dark into Pasto. We made a bee-line to the hotel. We were a bit wired from the adrenaline of the day.  I was still riding on the laurels of my successful staging of a ‘One Woman/Two Child Collectivo Rebellion’ in the station that morning. I could almost feel my blonde highlights darkening as my gringo exterior morphed into a Gabriel-Garcia Marquez-esque heroine.  Fermina Daza perhaps? I felt I had earned my place in a long line of freedom fighting Latin American dissidents from my coup d’etat, overthrowing the reigning nepostical lords of the collectivo station that would usher naive travelers into substandard means of transport.

But, if life has a way of cutting the prideful to their knees, then travel even more efficiently lays one flat.

We walked into our hotel and my traveling savvy deflated. The hotel had been my selection. The choice had been a stab in the dark as there was a paucity of online reviews.  I relied on Lonely Planet’s printed book advice, reserving Hotel del Parque because it was close to the bus terminal, without seeming to be that close. I heeded the warnings that hotels within a close proximity to the bus station tended to attract hourly business. We wanted our brief stay to be convenient and were hoping to stay under $100 for the four of us.

Upon check-in, we quickly realized I had booked that kind of hotel. Though I can blame my immature response to this realization on the fatigue and stress of a long day of travel, I confess that I suppressed immature guffaws and nudged Jorge in the leg as a young man and his painted, perky, pushed-up companion were quickly ushered away from the desk after handing the clerk some cash in exchange for a room key. As we climbed the steps to our room, my adolescent behavior continued as I asked Jorge if that paltry amount got them one hour or two.

Trying not to let our check-in experience sully our view of the hotel, we gave up any pretensions of positivity when we walked in our room. It was tiny. After we were settled in and hooked-up the lifelines to our digital devices, luggage barely unpacked, we found that our ‘sleeps 4’ room barely even sat four. It was decidedly not a family-friendly hotel.

In search of an outlet, and a bit of space, Dylan was fully underneath one of the beds and Abigail was crouched awkwardly in the gully between. I squatted at the foot of one bed, but would have been crushed had someone tried to open the door to either the bathroom or hallway. Thankfully the white tiled floors were clean, although predictably cold.

Jorge perched on the only remaining space. He was good-natured about being the fodder for the evening’s jokes. Finding no other place to sit, he closed the lid and sat on the toilet, laptop resting on his knees and feet coming well into the room as the narrow bathroom would only permit an angled perch.

Ignoring the threadbare sheets and similarly thin walls in the diminutive room, we slept heavily, glad to have made it through the day.

Many have asked if we would we take the Macoa-Pasto route again.  It’s hard to say. Travel, like many things in life, is based on serendipitous moments strung together by events which initially appear unrelated and insignificant. This random reinforcement of highs and lows is addictive. The day delivered discomfort and uncertainty, the kind of energy which would be unlikely at a beach side resort. It’s only with hindsight that I gain the clairvoyance to understand how such unexpected and unsolicited experiences are essential to the fabric of our communal family memories.

The color and twist of the day’s events inextricably intertwined us to each other.  These tough experiences tightened our weave. It gave us each a more central position in each other’s life tapestries. It provided another story-turned-legend to look back on and exaggerate with every telling. It offered us all compelling reasons to fight against the inertia so prevalent in the world today, pulling families apart. And it gave us a glimmer of faith in bigger things. Even my jaded pessimism wanted to believe that just maybe we were ordained to travel along that road, and all of the others in life, together.

The experience on ‘The Trampoline of Death’ also hit me at an individual level. The nature of the day’s events assuaged a rising tide of anxiety. We were all feeling the lingering shadow of Jorge’s departure in Quito, leaving the three of us to travel through Ecuador and Peru for the next seven weeks.

I worried about logistics, safety, and of singularly bearing the fatiguing weight of travel. The excitement over the great transport that morning had faded with the disappointing hotel choice. And the road we had taken to get there was decidedly unsafe. Handling the decisions, pitfalls, and frustrations of travel was tough, especially without a partner.  As I often warned the kids, “This is not America.  There are no guardrails…or people to sue. You just die and that’s it.”

But the day’s events also jostled my focus, oddly settling my fears. I was reminded again that travel is not about me. It’s not about proving myself a good mom or a road-worthy adventurer. And it’s not about comfort and predictability and making all the right choices. Instead, travel is a way to strip away life’s desensitizing insulation and rise above the dusty fallout from mistakes.

It’s easy to stumble through life, willing to take whatever truck offers the next ride.

But it’s different when I’m on the road. I’m stripped of anything but the most basic concerns for food, shelter, and safety. I have no other material burdens than what I can carry. I focus less on expectations for the “right road” and more on the exploring the experience on whatever road I find myself.

I take my children on roads like the Trampolin del Meurte because I know they won’t always be traveling by my side. Our paths will diverge. They must. When they find themselves cruising down a well-paved super highway or careening along a narrow, washed out road, I hope they’ll remember that a fulfilled life is not about selecting the perfect road. A good life is found by making the decision to travel authentically on whatever road you chose.

Crossing the bridge into Eucador, still smiling.

Crossing the bridge into Eucador, still alive and smiling.

Are you scared to go in alone?

2 July 2014, Medellin Colombia

“Are you scared to go in alone?“

That’s how my daughter translated the flat-toned words of the armed Spanish-speaking policeman.

The first thing that came into my head was well beyond my basic Spanish. I wanted to say: “Well, since you brought it up…is there a reason we should be? Let’s just stop a minute and talk about this. Yes, in fact, I am feeling a bit apprehensive. Have you had any issues with the safety of visitors? Are you offering to escort us? Is there something else we need to know?” Though all this and more raced through my head at that moment, I could do nothing but smile and draw upon my limited Spanish vocabulary, “No. No.” (as a smile and ‘no’ are both conveniently the same in English and Spanish).

I also reconsidered prompting the kids, who are bilingual, to ask the usual tourist-venue questions. It didn’t seem like information about an audio guide, map, or reduced fee for kids would be a part of the discussion. It was quickly apparent that the only business would be about the negotiable ‘entrance cost.’

Although we were not sure what we would see, we were decidedly not expecting to experience what we found inside. From the street, the building looked fine on the outside. There were some weeds growing up between the pavement in the drive, and the awning fabric was missing from the penthouse level patio, exposing an empty metal frame, but there was nothing to suggest that it was particularly run down or uninhabitable.

From the street, there was nothing to suggest what we'd find inside.

From the street, there was nothing to suggest what we’d find inside.

Passing through the gate and guardhouse, we walked around the building onto the entrance patio, passing under the massive nude figures of a man, woman and child wrought in metal and dramatically arching off the white building’s side façade.

The guy who informally worked the parking in  that section of the street got us an audience with the guard.  But he wouldn't go any further than door.

The guy who informally worked the parking in that section of the street got us an audience with the guard. But he wouldn’t go any further than door.

It was at about that moment that I tried to remember how we came to make this our first tourist destination in Medellin. It seemed that Jorge and I both individually came to the same conclusion as to the morning’s plans after finding the location written in on the map on the hotel wall. Since it was within walking distance of our hotel, it seemed to be a logical first activity. Maybe we were also motivated to look for this place as the months of preparation for this trip often put us in a position where we felt the need to defend the choice of our summer’s itinerary to include Colombia, still incorrectly thought by many to be completely in the grips of the drug cartels.

Regardless of how it happened, we both felt an irresistible draw to at least walk past the very building where now we found ourselves crossing the threshold and looking around, trying to appear casual.

Within seconds, any detached, unaffected vibe we were trying to give off was replaced with slack-jawed shock. As I wondered if there wasn’t a Botero museum full of voluminous nudes or a massive cathedral that would have been a more appropriate sight-seeing place to visit with our kids, we quickly understood why the guard asked us if we minded climbing steps. As we all assumed the unnecessary whispers of people suddenly finding themselves in a shocking situation, we were also appreciating why they had asked us if we were afraid to go in alone.

Not sure what to make of the destruction or if we should go on.

Not sure what to make of the destruction or if we should go on.

Of the three sets of elevator doors in what had once served as the foyer, one was partially askew, revealing a cracked mirror. Looking up, we saw gaping holes in the ceiling. The floor was covered with dust, chunks of plaster and broken tiles.

No room was untouched from the destruction.

No room was untouched from the destruction.

Paint was peeling, doors were torn off their hinges, and any doors still on their hinges had holes about the size of human head punched into them. As the electricity was off, it took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust and find the dimly lit stairway.

Just like the fool-hearty protagonists in any scary movie, we ventured up the dark stairs. Each of the levels held more of the same destruction—large holes, missing fixtures, flooded patios, stripped floors and bare walls (where the plaster wasn’t already destroyed or smashed up in some other way).

Making our way up the last dark stairwell to the penthouse level, we began to glimpse the light.

Making our way up the last dark stairwell to the penthouse level, we began to glimpse the light.

On the top floor, we peeked into one room that was black with smoke damage. While the building was still structurally sound, the weight of what we imagined might have gone down in this apartment to cause this particular kind of destruction seemed to echo heavily in the silence. Peering through the strategically located holes in many of the doors, we imagined them to be sights for drawn-out gun battles.

At first we were confused by the similar holes on all the doors at the same height, but then our imagination let lose and we began to see movement in the shadows.

At first we were confused by the similar holes on all the doors at the same height, but then our imagination let lose and we began to see movement in the shadows.

The huge chunks missing out of the walls and ceilings made us shudder as we thought of police raiding the building, attacking the walls with sledge hammers, in search of hidden cash and contraband. And though we’d suppose that there very well may have been secret M-19 documents hastily destroyed in the room with smoke-blackened walls, we would never really know as there was no tour guide or security guard to ask. In fact, at that point we were just praying that we wouldn’t be surprised by a guard, or anyone else. We continued to hesitantly walk from room to room, none of which was roped off with braided cord or lit with tasteful museum lighting.

Reaching the penthouse level, the mounting anxiety was almost tangible among the four of us, and I began to worry if any of us lingered on the balconies or stood too long at the massive windows, now missing their glass, in case someone from the street or a neighboring apartment reported our presence. Would the authorities come? What would they do to us? Would they care that we were trespassing? Were we actually trespassing if we had received the guard’s permission? How many visitors had made a similar pilgrimage to this unassuming white 5-story apartment building? Whether it was the recklessness of our decision to enter the building or the intensity of the drama which unfolded in these rooms that was getting to us, we all seemed ready to end our self-guided tour.

But then we saw the massive foot-thick metal door of a safe. Probably too large to remove when the building had been strip-searched for evidence, it was at that moment that the drug lord himself, Pablo Escobar, seemed to stand there beside us, nimbly turning the dial of his safe and pulling open the heavy door to reveal stacks of cash. We could almost see the neat piles, secured in rubber bands for which he reportedly budgeted $2500 per month (just to have enough bands to keep all the cash organized). As we stood inside the safe, we imagined what cash and other illicit items were contained in this space, which was the size of a small bedroom.

By that moment, everyone was feeling that it was well beyond the time that we should go, but I insisted that they make a goofy pose.

By that moment, everyone was feeling that it was well beyond the time that we should go, but I insisted that they make a goofy pose.

Now completely shaken by the reality of where we were, we posed to capture the moment as we gaped into the safe, and then gingerly made our way down the steps to the property exit, guiding our path with the light from our iPhones. We thanked the guard on our way out, who seemed to have changed from his initial harshness to slightly amused by the four of us. As we left, our interest had been piqued to learn more about the legend of Pablo Escobar and how this “King of Cocaine” gripped the country so ruthlessly that countless people’s lives had been tarnished and destroyed for decades, both in Colombia and throughout the world.

Like the lives that were shattered, some things cannot be put back together.

Like the lives that were shattered, some things cannot be put back together.

And though Colombia still has a drug trade, it has been slowly emerging from its grasp, enough at least to welcome visitors with open arms. As those tourists, we anxiously make jokes about the insinuation of an online self-description of former world drug capital, Medellin. Extolling its transformation, it proudly claims that the streets of this second largest city in Colombia are safe most of the time. Though accurate, this statement does not perhaps offer the intended assurance.

But the drug war is more than Escobar and rubber-banded stacks of money and border controls. Getting into a cab that afternoon revealed the face of that ‘mostly’ safe city. Catching the eye of the driver as he glanced into the rear-view mirror, and then watching him as he honked and swerved his way through the late afternoon traffic, I wanted to ask him if he’d lived in Medellin his entire life. He looked around 65, which would have put him as a contemporary of Escobar. What had he seen? Had he been touched by loss or violence or involvement in the drug cartel? Did he know of Escobar as a rascally teenager reselling sand-blasted grave markers to Panamanians, and running petty street crime? Did the apparent vice grip that Escobar held on the drug trafficking threaten to suffocate their town, or could they operate under its radar and enjoy relative normalcy?

As social protocol and the obvious language barrier prevented this conversation, I could be only be thankful that if nothing else, by straying from the route of the hop-on/hop-off red double-decker tourist bus, we had all experienced a paradigm shift. By replacing the glossy shoot ‘em up image of the drug cartels which are presented in Hollywood with view of the stark reality of lives lost and destructed, as poignantly reflected in the stripped-out building, we were able to see that trafficking was and still is more than money and government and bad guys. It is lives that are shattered and drained. And even though others have risen in the place of Escobar, the hopeful truth is that although his house still stands in the quiet, upscale residential neighborhood, it seems to be merely occupying space in a town to which it no longer belongs. The emergence of Medellin into a vibrant city showcasing a diverse arts scene, inviting parks, a rich cultural heritage and a welcoming people is a strong testament to the resiliency of the human condition which can work to not only heal and recover a city, but also restore a people to their lives and their country.

Ironically, the same question that the guard asked us, “Are you scared?” was what many people asked us before we left for a 3 month tour of Panama, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. In answer to the police guard and to everyone else who asked, yes, we were a little scared. But what we confirm in our travels every time we choose to walk up the proverbial (or literal) unlit stairwell is that when we expose ourselves to risk and uncertainty, we are leaving ourselves open for opportunities to experience the good in the world. We foster hope when we see the city turn its back on places like Pablo Escobar’s building, once harboring violence and destruction, but now neglected and almost forgotten. We’ve had endless positive connections with Colombians who have won us over and transformed our view of the country from a marginalized drug-torn land to a well-developed resilient country full generous people who work harder than any country we’ve ever visited to deflect the negative reputation and show hospitality. Even a city as terribly maligned as Medellin can show strong signs of recovery and reinvention. So we continue our journey, and pray that with a bit of rational caution (and avoidance of the times when those mostly safe streets aren’t so safe) we will continue to see that in life, there are far more reasons celebrate and much less to fear.

***And for the record and benefit of any grandparents or social service organizations who happen upon this blog, we recognize that bribing our way into the vacant, government-guarded home of a dead drug lord may not show ‘rational caution’ (and good parenting for that matter). We do not intend on making this a habit and will carefully consider excluding from our itinerary those venues for which entry requires trespassing or bribery, in addition to sites that do not offer audio guides.

Can’t buy me love, or adventure for that matter: Expensive reminders about what makes for a great travel experience.

I’ve always been a strong proponent of the belief that you get what you pay for. But, in Costa Rica, as with many travel experiences, paying more doesn’t necessarily get you more…

As any Central American traveler will confirm, Costa Rica is different from the rest of it’s neighbors to the north. Called the ‘Switzerland of Central America’ it’s more than just a lack of military presence that distinguishes this country.

First off, from my back of the envelope calculations, it’s at least four times more expensive than everyone else. But, this money gets visitors what they’re looking for: a quick trip full of adrenaline rushes that’s packaged, presented, shuttled and harnessed.

Everyone speaks English, accepts dollars and is full of convenient and fun tours that can be enjoyed with other Americans, and maybe an occasional European or Canadian.

But that’s not the only way that Costa Rica differentiates itself from the rest of Central America. It gets a perfect 10 on my scale for ease of travel in a country–called the TP test. How does a country score a perfect ten? High marks are earned by havingTP in every restroom. Though the scale is based ONLY on the presence or lack of TP, I’ve found that higher scores consistently indicate a greater likelihood of toilet seats, soap, bathroom doors, locks, and an actual commode, not merely a hole in the floor. Of course, I’ve found that this scale also has a direct correlation to other things like hot water, sanitary practices, disease eradication, literacy rates, access to healthy food, childhood mortality, gender equality, and quite honestly, could I be so bold as to assert that the entire GDP for a country could be predicted by the prevalence of TP? I understand the IMF is trying to get its hands on my metrics. You read it here first!

But it’s more than just TP and adrenaline that make for a good trip. Honestly, we’ve had trouble not comparing these expensive over-processed, tightly scheduled tourist attractions with the genuine experiences we’ve had in the rest of Central America. For example, after paying $45 for a 35 minute tour of a butterfly enclosure, regarded as the most beautiful in Monteverde, we were rather unimpressed by the paltry presentation. We still had visions of the butterflies at Finca Mystica in Ometepe Island, Nicaragua where the mid-day sun was thick with fluttering color that danced around a huge mango tree.

 Butterflies at Finca Mystica, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Butterflies at Finca Mystica, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

We’d watch, spellbound by the display, as we relaxed in hammocks on the veranda. And the truth is that we paid less per night for our own sustainably built yurt-shaped cob cabin surrounded by wild flowers at Finca Mystica than we paid for a 35 minute butterfly tour in Costa Rica.

 Yurt at Finca Mystica

Yurt at Finca Mystica

Hammocks and wildflowers aside, we were wearying of Costa Rica. After a day of ropes and bridges and sad butterflies, we found our experience in Costa Rica less than genuine. Honestly, we were counting the days (and the dollars) until we could leave.

Much of this frustration must have come from the lack of connections as it was difficult to get to know the Tico people. There was a distinct vibe that we’re just another tourist trio dropping $300 a day into their economy. No wonder this country has stellar marks on the TP Scale.

Fellow tourists were not much better. As Jorge described it, while the rest of Central American travelers approach their experiences as if seated at a family style table, in Costa Rica, vacationers tend to be more insular, giving off ‘a table for two’ vibe.

Frustrated, I started to realize that our dissatisfaction was more than just hurried tourists and adrenaline withdraws. Was I simply going about it all wrong? Could it be my fault? It was suddenly evident to me that I had fallen into the Costa Rican one-week-wonder tour trap. That’s not our style. No wonder we weren’t feeling pura vida!

Disillusioned by the commercialism of it all, we felt desperate to dig deeper. So we re-calibrated our jaded expectations and vowed to look for the silver lining in this cloud forest.

The next morning, we left our hotel and instead of jumping into a waiting tourist transport shuttle, we walked out the door with sandwiches in our back pack and headed down the road. We boarded the convenient public bus that cost $1.20. By 9:30 we had arrived down a bumpy road to a different side of Monteverde.

Our first stop was Bosque Eterno de los Ninos (Children’s Eternal Rainforest). I knew little about this privately held reserve and arrived without a map of course, one of the frustrating problems of traveling without my husband. We stumbled down this path and that until we came upon a man, Bob Law, who just happened to be a founding member of the reserve 27 years ago.

Bob Law

Bob Law

He showed us around and then started regaling us with nascent tales of the park, the idea of which came from a few of them who had initially worked with the Monteverde Cloud Forest. They formed their own organization as they had a larger vision for a reserve. Over an hour later, we had learned the history, geography and wonderful anecdotes of the park’s creation. Swedish school children in 1987, forgotten government promises, Mexican (or maybe Cuban?) defaulted loans, the last big cats, and a larger-than-life vision propelled this dream past a government’s failed promise to preserve the land. Through the organization’s efforts, the land was transformed into a private reserve that dwarfs the more commercialized Monteverde Cloud Forest. As we walked away, the kids chattered about how they really wouldn’t have cared about this park much if they had read about it in a book at school, but after meeting a founder and hearing his stories, they would always remember this first person encounter with history.

Next stop? Bat Jungle (which we called ‘Bat Cave’ all day, accompanied with the appropriate Batman tune). Though bats may be some of the most maligned and misunderstood creatures on the planet, we all left feeling rather endeared to these little critters.

Kelly Laval, whose father, Dr. Richard K. Laval is a world renowned bat biologist, started the bat jungle. Kelly now gives tours and enthusiastically conveys a love and appreciation for bats. Not only is she a wealth of information about bats and the irreplaceable role they play in the environment, but she knows each of the over 75 bats in their enclosure and can tell you about their family connections and endearing details of their personality.

We ended the day at the Cheese Factory Tour, where we learned about the history of the Quakers that left America for Costa Rica in the 1950’s as pacifists wishing to avoid participating in the Korean war. Costa Rica was a perfect fit as it had abolished it’s military. Two of the original settlers were still alive and our guide knew them and painted a colorful picture of these individuals. They were dairy farmers who settled the area and then developed a cheese industry. The historical overview was great; thankfully we didn’t go for the cheese which was certainly not a gastronomically elevating experience. Ironically, we took the tour with a French family who were a lesson in tact and diplomacy. And in the gift shop at the end, I was quietly entertained as their kids begged them to buy the orange queso con salsa dip that came in a squeeze tube.

Later that afternoon, we found ourselves skipping the bus and instead enjoying the hilly three kilometer walk back into town, talking about our day and the unexpected surprises. Though we didn’t careen through the tree tops, take death-defying swings off platforms, or spend hundreds of dollars, we found this day of relationships much more rewarding.

And so, with a perspective shift, a slower pace, and for a third of the cost we were able to appreciate another side of Costa Rica. Is there a time for thrilling zip lines? Of course, and I’m glad we didn’t leave Costa Rica without cruising through the canopy. But thankfully I realized my expensive error in trying to buy our way into an overly touristed country and then expecting a fulfilling experience. As I’d learned over the past 8 weeks, we stumble upon our own adventures easily enough. I also realized that I unfairly judged Costa Rica. After all, how unjust would I find an impression of America formed from a four day visit to the parks in Orlando?

Thankfully we caught our flawed approach before it was too late. We were gifted with a rare glimpse into Costa Rica’s intrinsic value by those who love it most–through the eyes of Bob, and Kelly, and an unassuming cheese factory tour guide. And though the kids may brag about the length of the zip lines to their friends, it’s the message from these three that will be more likely to find a way into their psyche and shape their choices, impact their world view and influence their motivations as they grow.

And though I can always carry a stash of TP in my bag or pay the old lady for a wad of it at the bathroom entrance, I’m reminded that genuine encounters can never be bought or engineered. They simply happen to an unsuspecting traveler who is willing to wander slowly down the road.

Tramping through El Salvador

Tramping through El Salvador

This blog is dedicated to Kelly Laval and Bob Law who both spontaneously took a few hours from their day to share their passions with three bleary-eyed travelers. May I find myself as generous to those who wander down the path in my life.

 

First Day on Our Own: Looking for the upside to wrong turns, rocky roads and volcano fountains

“Day 38 Six hours, two buses, one ferry–and we’re almost at Finca Mystica in Ometepe Island.”

Those were the overconfident lines I wrote from an Internet cafe at around 4 pm, in Altagracia. It was probably around the same time, as we would later learn, that the last bus of the day was pulling away for Merida, leaving us stranded.

The day had started auspiciously. We had left Granada that morning on a chicken bus, bound for Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. We had arranged to have a cab from the organic tree farm, Finca Mystica, pick us up. Considering most cab rides have been a dollar or two, it felt kind of crazy to spend $30 for the ride, but as it was the first day the kids and I would be traveling on our own, Jorge encouraged us to take the cab as it would erase any of the uncertainty from taking the local buses.

That first bus to Rivas went smoothly. It was full of tourists. It was odd as I had never seen so many tourists on a chicken bus. Probably a good fifth or maybe even a quarter were hauling backpacks. I breathed an internal sigh of relief, confident this would be an easy trip to Ometepe since everyone was heading the same direction. We arrived in San Jorge and had a $3 cab ride to the ferry. Rough ride on the ‘new’ (circa 1970) ferry, but knowing that our pre-arranged driver would be waiting was a great relief.

As soon as we got off the ferry, we were accosted by the usual “taxi! taxi!” I looked for my guy with a sign, as I had imagined our driver would have a handwritten paper announcing “Herrada” as if hailing our successful first morning of travel as a threesome.

But he wasn’t there.

Many drivers offered to take us to Finca Mystica, but I was worried that our driver would come and find us gone. So we waited, eventually concluding that he wasn’t coming. And then I saw the chicken bus. Considering this option, I’d not only save $28, but I’d also prove what unflappable adventurers we were–savvy, frugal travelers who can handle just about anything thrown our way. Right or wrong, I needed that validation, a vote of confidence that first day.

We clambered on the old school bus, local style, through the back emergency exit. The bus sat, waiting to fill. We were soon hot and questioning if this was the best choice. We got off. We weren’t giving up, just exploring our options, as Jorge would have done. We talked to the local guys lingering around the bus. The bus wasn’t leaving for a half an hour. One said to take this bus. The other said wait for the next bus. Many said to just take a cab.

We were wilting quickly so we stepped into a patio restaurant with Wifi for a drink so we could check our email and see if the hotel was sending a ride. That’s when I realized that when I had intended to reply to the hotel this morning to arrange our driver, I had replied only to Jorge’s forwarded message. Ryan, the owner, had not received our email. My dream of a waiting chauffeur was gone.

Undeterred, I seized the chance to prove what good travelers the kids and I were. Chicken bus all the way….

Off the tourist route on this bus, it was a crowded ride to Altagracia, where we stopped for lunch and to wait for the next bus on the last leg of our journey, departing at 4:30 to get us to Merida.

We looked for an internet cafe to confirm our change of plans with Ryan, the owner of Finca Mystica, as we’d need them to pick us up at the last town to drive is to the farm. It was then that we stumbled on what we thought must be Altagracia’s claim to fame: a model of Ometepe Island made of two large volcano structures set in a fountain. Though perhaps ‘claim to fame’ is a bit strong, there were turtles in the water and a few even climbing around on the island statue’s ring road. Nice. Kids were duly impressed. Looking back, I wonder if the turtle on the ring road wasn’t an omen for our day. Of course, had Jorge been there, we would have known to stop in at the church see the petroglyphs.

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At the Internet cafe, we were sure to let Jorge know about our facility navigating chicken buses without him. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were gloating, but perhaps a bit prideful.

We had lunch, bought some snacks to take with us, and crossed the park to where the bus would come.

But the bus had already left, about a half hour ago. We had been told the wrong time.

Absolutely undeterred, I marched the children down the center of the road in the direction out of town. I announce in no uncertain terms that we’d be hitch hiking. We’d just jump in the back of a pick up and get to Merida. We were an intrepid threesome and nothing could stop us. This was just another chance to prove that.

But we didn’t see any pickups. A collectivo finally passed, turning a corner and heading in the right direction. I yelled and flagged my arms. I was sure that this must be our ticket out of town. But they were already too far away to see us.

Then a man with a cloth and a bottle of polish, lovingly detailing his motorcycle, and most likely waiting his entire life for this moment, jumped on his bike and raced down the street to catch the collectivo for us, which by this point was well out of sight.

And short of him saying he would take us on his motorcycle himself, this heroic act of kindness would have been a great way to resolve this travel dilemma. Collectivo flagged down. They’d say that of course they were heading to Merida. We’d get in, exhausted and relieved. Problem solved. What an adventure.

But, though our machismo motorcycle man did catch them, the collectivo wasn’t going to Merida. And our speeding hero didn’t offer to have us hop on, backpack straps flapping in the wind as he took us to Merida himself.
So we were stuck again, not just in Merida, but in my stymied pride. Having just spent over three hours getting to this point from the ferry, I was not going to bail out now and take a cab, which would cost the same exact price as a cab from the ferry.

Honestly, I had something to prove to myself and the kids. I had to show them that we could do this and that we’d be alright alone for the next four weeks. If we totally failed the first day, how would that bode for the rest of the trip?

And finally, the truth was, and still is tonight as I write this, that I’m tired and scared. I feel like this whole trip was just too much to take on alone. I wanted to be home where I had nail polish remover and perpetually clean laundry and huge containers of organic baby spinach. I wanted really hot water and a day where I didn’t have to apply DEET insect repellent like lotion while carrying burdensome worries that one of my kids is going to get dengue or a tropical parasite.

But home felt like an elusive dream at that moment. Hot and tired, knowing that we had less than two hours of daylight, we kept trying. Dylan flagged down the occasional collectivo that passed and we asked if they were heading to Merida. Abigail suggested we just go to the grocery store and check if they had ice cream to keep up our energy.

No luck on either front. I was beginning to wonder where Merida was and why no one was going there.

So I gave up. When a second tourist cab finally stopped, we got in. Paid $30. The road to Merida was a bumpy ride on something more aptly called a rock scramble, not really even a trail and definitely not like any road I’ve ever been on. People walked and a few biked, but we didn’t pass any other cars.

As we jolted along the road, I shared with the kids I’d felt like I’d failed. Dylan flatly agreed. Without malice, Abigail said it wouldn’t have happened if Papa had been here. My eyes burned. Tears I had refused to shed that morning as we said goodbye to Jorge were forming a hard knot in my throat. I was frustrated that the day had been so long and angry at myself for making the wrong call.

I tried to put a good spin on it and point out the highlights. Think of what an adventure today was, I told the kids. There were the cute turtles in the funky volcano fountain, the great lunch in Altagracia, and the vision of our motorcycle hero speeding off down the road to catch our ride.

I couldn’t get any takers at my reframing attempts.

Then our van slowed and turned off the road. The sign said, “Finca Mystica.”

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The little houses along the road that were so cute on their website were shacks. There was a bag’o bones horse roped to a tree. Abigail was near to tears when she declared that it was nothing like the pictures online that she’d been poring over for the last few months.

Thankfully, the road didn’t end there. We kept driving and were let out at the most amazing yurt-like cabanas–sustainably, artistically, and lovingly set out on a field near a covered lodge and dining area connected with winding stone paths and dotted with over 100 species of fruit trees and nut trees organically grown. Ryan and Angela ensconced us in a warm welcome. The kids were thrilled. Dinner was coconut Thai soup for Abigail and burritos for Dylan.

Inside our Yurt at Finca Mystica

Inside our Yurt at Finca Mystica

And all was solved, at least for the evening. But there were still many days ahead of us and the reality was that it wasn’t just a few overpriced cabs and missed buses that could undermine this trip. Instead, it was the wrestling within my own psyche, an uneasy confidence battle, feeling like I had bombed out on the first day and couldn’t do this alone. And quite honestly, I was a bit angry at myself for becoming so dependent on someone and needing Jorge so much.

But maybe my expectations were just set too high. It seems appropriate to remember Jorge’s mantra when I go out of town and leave him with the kids– “My goal is to just keep ’em alive.” He doesn’t try to make fancy dinners or keep the house clean or chaperone the kids’ field trips. He doesn’t try to replace me; just mitigate the damage of my absence. So I’m giving up pretending to be a great adventure traveler who can do this on my own and doesn’t need Jorge. I shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that when he’s with us, we’re a good team. Without him, there will be more wrong turns, lost socks, missed buses and miscalculated finances. But, as we have no other choice for the next month, maybe I just need to see the good side of this mayhem.

After all, life’s journey isn’t really about arriving at the destination in a straight line free of detours or wrong turns. Since no one can avoid the proverbial ‘end of the road’ anyway, why take the highway to get there when you could take a colorful chicken bus, stopping along the way in little towns with quirky turtle-volcano fountains and spontaneous heroes on motorcycles.

And when I do return home it’s more than just organic spinach and endless piles of clean laundry that I’ll appreciate. It’s the acute awareness that Jorge and I are a great team. Being married to Jorge is definitely not taking the highway. It’s simply finding a colorful yet carefully planned route to visit the amazing, connect with the quirky and linger with the unforgettable–together.

Souvenir Shopping: It’s all about asking the right questions.

I love to shop on vacation. Every place has a niche market and just being there makes me want it. Sadly, even items which wouldn’t catch my eye at home seem like a good idea when I’ve had to get my passport stamped to get there. 20130726-184133.jpgRugs in Turkey? We’ve hauled one home. A dozen sheepskins in New Zealand? Packed and transported. A Portuguese watering can…red Moroccan ballet flats… white Cuban table linens…hand blown Egyptian glasses and matching pitcher? All selected, bargained, paid, packed, hauled….and now sitting in my house. The problem is that when I get home, those red shoes hurt my feet, the sheepskins feel like a PETA faux pas and the white table linens are just plain impractical. My travel shopping sprees clearly don’t translate well to my real life.

The sobering reality of this phenomenon is that it doesn’t take a passport stamp to trigger it. This past summer in Florida, I was brainwashed by pink. Sad for me because by the end of the trip, there was actually a flock of pink yard flamingos in my trunk, most likely breaking an interstate commerce law as I was driving across state lines with the intent and purpose of displaying tacky lawn decor in others’ yards.

Talking this over with a friend, I’ve realized that this shopping alter ego, what I’ve called the Flamingo Effect (after my misfortunes in Florida), goes well beyond style and souvenirs. My friend whose passport stamps rival Hillary Clinton has noticed that this effect colors her view of men, too. She admits that men who would not turn her head at home look more attractive abroad, when she’s immersed in their country. Home court advantage? Maybe. A slight Japanese man gives off a sexy vibe. She finds herself wondering about the angular German man across the cafe. And I confess a strange allure to the sultry Turkish man that offers me tea and croons that my eyes are like the sea. Thankfully neither of us has managed to bring home any of this type of souvenir.

After years of over-shopping, I have realized the sad truth about souvenirs: Just like the handsome men, not every thing that catches my eye really should be brought home. But when I’m shopping somewhere away from home, I’m convinced that this is THE item that, once I return, will transform my mundane life into a little vacation every time I see it. And that’s probably the core of the issue–I want to bring that vacation feeling home.

This summer is a little different though. We’re not taking rolling suitcases that we can overpack. Instead, we’re hauling backpacks on the chicken buses in Central America. Every ounce is carefully considered. I can’t let myself fall prey to the Flamingo Effect.

So what do I bring home as a souvenir? Writing this, I remembered back to high school French. The root of the word ‘souvenir’ is simply ‘to come to mind again.’ There’s nothing in the definition about needlessly spending money on trinkets.

And truth be told, I know it’s not the stuff I cram in my bag that puts me on the road more than 3 months each year. Instead, it’s the personal connections that feed my wanderlust. It’s walking down a street at night and glimpsing a family moment through a partly open door. It’s learning where someone’s life has taken them and then letting the story resonate with me for years as I wonder how it ended.

It’s these moments that are the best souvenirs.

And so that’s what I’ll take with me from this summer. And that’s how I’ll reminisce when I want to recapture a bit of our trip…

….I’ll return a stack of barely read library books for my kids and remember volunteers inviting us to help them deliver books to rural schools in Ahuacapan…I’ll see a young hispanic bus boy at the pizza place in Arlington and think of a chicken bus entrepreneur who saved money working 16 hour days in a pizza joint in Jersey, returning to La Perla to buy two successful chicken buses.20130726-183500.jpgAnd I’ll get an email and two phone calls from my mother in a period of three hours and remember the clean-cut bright young man in Suchitoto who could have been my son in ten years, but who’s unnamed crime while working in Jamaica keeps him on road and scared to return to the US. He admitted he has no one at home to help him sort it out, much less someone who looses sleep at night or sends emails during the day, wondering where he is.

But I think it goes deeper than just remembering stories from the road. Instead, it’s living with a traveler’s inquiry to feed my wandering spirit, even when I’m home. It’s adopting an awareness that I don’t have to cross an international border to connect, but sometimes just walk across the street and ask the traveler’s perennial question, “Where are you going? Where have you been?” Everyone has an answer worth hearing and worth remembering.

So today in Nicaragua and two months from now in Arlington, I’ll live with the consciousness that everyone is a fellow adventurer in this journey we call life. If I do choose to take a minute or an hour, or a lifetime to get to know that traveler, my own life will be richer for having taken the time to ask. And instead of the hassle of hauling home clutter, my souvenirs will be the stories I’ll collect and the memories I’ll carry.

What Can a Book Do? Guest Blogger Dylan Herrada shares how he’s making the world a better place.

Editor’s note: One can’t travel through Central America without having a jolt of guilt from the extreme poverty. There’s an undeniable gulf between the few ‘haves’ and the mass of ‘have nots.’ We had all been feeling a nagging desire to do something, and were hoping to find somewhere to volunteer.

We had come across various volunteer organizations over the last few weeks. The reality of last minute volunteering is that it’s not as easy as one would think. Understandably, organizations seem to want at least a week long commitment. There’s also been the questionably large financial commitment–explained as processing and project fees. Such a financial request made us wonder who was padding their pockets.

Then a few days ago, we had a chance encounter while waiting for a bus. Since travelers are rare around here in El Salvador’s nascent tourism industry, we immediately recognized each other as foreigners amongst the local crowd at a bus stop. We never miss the opportunity to connect with a fellow adventurer.

It was through this chance encounter on the way to Ahuachapan, El Salvador that we met adult siblings that were traveling together–Wendy and Matt Finlayson. We immediately connected with Wendy and Matt and were impressed with their genuine kindness and warmth (along with the fact that we couldn’t imagine our kids choosing to travel together some day!)

Here’s what Dylan Herrada (11 yrs) had to say about the experience:

A few days ago we met some people that were doing some volunteer work in El Salvador. They were delivering books to remote rural schools. Some of these schools had a library of maybe 10 books. We asked if there was anything we could do to help. They said yes.

The next day we woke up at 5:30 am. By 6:30 we were riding in the back of an old pickup truck. We went to the first school that had about 45 students ranging in age from 3-8. Some of the students had never seen Americans. Some of them couldn’t read at all while others were barely reading.

We gave them a box of Spanish books containing around 50 books. I read a book to the children and they listened carefully and really liked it. 20130714-144544.jpg They were excited that we had brought them these books.

At some schools, each student’s mother had made their child a special book bag to take a book home and share it with their family. 20130714-150648.jpgThe problem was that they had so few books, only one child in each class was allowed to take home a book each night. This is a picture of what one entire school’s library looked like.20130714-144821.jpgNow that they have the books we delivered, more children can bring home a book and read. To us the books may seem like a small amount but to them it was a mountain of books.

There were three schools that we visited in total that day. Some of the schools had more students. At the other schools, we did a presentation of some of the books. We read them the 2 books that the kids in other schools had liked the most. Then I helped to teach them some basic English words, give them the box of books and get ready to move on to the next school. It wasn’t sad to leave since we knew that “Books for a Better World” would be back next year to encourage the teachers, visit the school and bring more books.20130714-144707.jpgMost of the roads were dirt roads so we went down some steep, rocky hills. The rain had made deep ruts in road and we had to hold on tightly. Sometimes, the truck would slowly slide down the hills.20130714-151815.jpgIn all we went to 3 schools. We had intended to go to four but it started raining heavily and the dirt roads became inaccessible. We had to go back to the hotel, soaking wet but feeling like we had been a part of something important.

That day will definitely be the highlight of our vacation.

– Dylan Herrada

Final editor’s note:
What an amazing day we had. Never could have planned it, but it was perfect how it worked out. Glad it seemed to impact the kids, too.

I was super impressed with this organization. It was small enough to be extremely fiscally responsible but large enough to be effective. They work with the Department of Education very loosely to gain appropriate entré into the schools–but not so closely that there’s any concerns about favoritism. Their book selection was culturally sensitive and relevant. They have a great rapport with the teachers and directors and they see a marked improvement in the schools with whom they’ve developed an ongoing relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a volunteer organization with such a low overhead–though this did mean we traveled in the back of a pick up!

It was fun, meaningful day. I can even see Dylan and Abigail following in the footsteps of Matt and Wendy some day and heading out on their own adventure together…20130714-150323.jpgIf you’d like to know more about Libros para un Mundo Mejor, go to http://www.booksforabetterworld.com. And in a few weeks, check out the website to see their updated video that they made. Maybe you’ll recognize a few faces.
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Neglectful Parenting: What you give your kids from poor planning and missing toilet seats.

I was beginning to wonder this morning if we hadn’t bitten off a bit too much on this trip. Rain, fatigue and long travel days (and nights) were taking their toll. I was questioning what the kids were really getting out of this experience. Eight more weeks in Central America felt like an eternity.

Perhaps most difficult part was the fact that the deeper we’d ventured into Guatemala, the more difficult it had become for Jorge and me to communicate with our limited Spanish.

This morning, we took the ferry from Panajachel across Lake Atitlán to San Pedro. 20130701-200001.jpgWhen we arrived with no hotel reservations, this small, quirky out-of-the way town seemed about to do us in. As we stood a block from the dock, we read from the guide book that no mid or high range hotels existed. I found myself becoming annoyed for not paying more attention to our itinerary.

This hillside lake town was mostly traditionally dressed Maya, with some travelers, and a few quirky uncategorized who came and never left, as is often found in off-the-path, but still marginally touristed towns. 20130701-200502.jpgWe set out to find a hotel. The first hotel we saw was unthinkable.

Jorge reluctantly said we’d take it.

I saw fear on the kids faces, and though I was trying to disguise my own anxiety, it was apparent to the children that things weren’t looking good.

No doubt frustrated by their parents’ poor Spanish and motivated by the need for a toilet seat, a clean bathroom, and a porch hammock, the kids took action.

So here’s how they saved the day and found a lovely room: Weighted down by their backpacks, Dylan and Abigail intrepidly walked in the gate of one hotel after they next. They’d look around for the office and find someone to help. Speaking in Spanish, Dylan would ask if they had a room for 4. Abigail would pipe in, also in Spanish–2 adults, 2 children. Then they’d ask to see it. Led to the room by the clerk, they’d set off up the steps, and I’d follow a distance behind.

I’d look on in awe as they’d do all the things they’d watched Jorge and me do–they’d check out the bathroom, look behind the shower curtain, and check the bed. And they’d say what they’d heard us say: they’d make a nice non-committal comment and as they’d walk back out of the room, Dylan would ask the price. Abigail would remind the clerk that two of the people were little kids and always asked if they’d charge less for kids. They’d inquire about the hot water and Wifi. If there was no lake view, they’d ask if there was a room with a nicer view. Then they’d thank the clerk, and explain that they were going to walk around and think about it a bit. 20130701-200925.jpgIt was like a little Jorge and Susannah, except that entire interaction was conducted in Spanish.

Their efforts paid off. After the sixth hotel, all unsuitable, they finally found one. It was clean, had three beds, two hammocks (!) and a private patio garden. They negotiated half-price for kids and as they started to walk away, the clerk, obviously entertained by the duo, said he’d take off another 25 Quetzales if they came back and took the room.

So for the moment, as I watch the kids swing on their hammocks, I’ve stopped wondering what they’re getting out of this trip, if we’re watching too much soccer on TV, spending too many hours in hammocks, or not eating enough vegetables. Today they arrived as strangers in a town. Within an hour, they were swinging on twin hammocks on the porch of their tidy garden room.20130701-201650.jpgThe lesson to me is that we did, in fact, bite off a bit too much to take this trip. But, I’m beginning to see that biting off a bit too much makes us better parents. If we loved them by keeping their days planned and pre-booked, we’d miss out on giving the kids the chance to have experiences where they are genuinely in control of their destiny.

In our first-world life, it’s hard to find a situation where children are forced to use problem solving skills when it really matters, weigh priorities which directly impact their comfort, and negotiate with adults, more than just trying getting more screen time.

We joke that after growing up with such intense traveling summers, they’ll never want to leave the comforts of home again when they’re adults. But tonight, that worry doesn’t matter as much as the realization that through these trips, the world has become internalized for each of them in a way that they will never loose.20130701-201256.jpg

Think you pack lightly? Think again. It’s more than the contents of your suitcase that matters in life’s journey.

When we arrived to National Airport a few days ago, I hauled my pack on to my back. All 18 pounds. The weight felt crushing. I couldn’t imagine how it gained so many pounds during the 8 minute ride from my house to the airport. It was a sobering moment.
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How could I possibly need all this stuff? Immediately, I was strategizing about whom to call that wouldn’t mind driving to National Airport to pick up a bag of cast-off non-essentials I’d glean before I sent my bag through security.

Of course, I didn’t do that. Instead, I unburdened myself with a grateful thud at baggage check at National. And retrieving my bag as it was spit up on the conveyor in Belize City, I became resigned to the next nine weeks.
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I remember over the past few months and how I got to this moment. In anxious fits, I’d go through my bag. For weeks, people have asked me if I’m all packed. I’d say yes, since I was packed…at least for that day. But, I knew that the next day, I’d unload, inventory and swap. Re-sort and switch out. What do I really need for 9 weeks in Central America? What could I live without? It became an obsession.

Clinically, I knew my repetitive packing and repacking was merely indicative of my anxiety about the upcoming trip. A fear of the inevitable loss of control as we made our way from Belize to Panama–what I ate, where I slept, how I traveled, how clean the toilet was, when I exercised, how hot and humid it was. Even just the freedom to leave my wallet or phone (or kids) safely at home would be gone.

I realize now that each item which made the final cut was a weighty visual view into my psyche. Makes me see what I can’t let go of, and what I can live without.

So it’s time for confessions of my 18 pound pack and 4.5 pound day bag.

My first ridiculous transgression is loose facial powder. I’ve never thought to pack this. But I’ve never been 39 before. This choice was completely driven by vanity. No amount of packing or passport stamping can erase the years. I’m breaths away from 40. My complexion needs a little more help these days, as a shiny face magnifies the creases. My only consolation is that the powder will be needed as I sweatily haul 23 pounds.

Next up? A Sawyer brand bite kit which claims to safely and effectively suck out snake venom and spider or other pest bites, providing valuable time before you have to get treatment.20130626-222943.jpgLaugh all you want at this one. I think ‘sucker’ maybe the operative word here. I do have a history of snake and spider issues, bordering on the phobic level. But, I’ve never ever had a run in with either while traveling, or anywhere else for that matter. And the only bit of a snake I ever ran into had a circumference of a man’s thigh, and was lying dead across a jungle path in Thailand. Not sure my little snake bite kit could have helped much had I met the living version of that snake.

But it’s not just a snake bite kit that I’ve packed prophylactically. I must also confess to hauling a small pharmacy of over-the-counter items and prescriptions for everything from skin and sinus infections to traveler’s diarrhea and giardia.
My traveling pharmacy begs to reveal inner fears, even more driving than my snake and spider phobias. As a mother, I worry about things I can’t control–that my child will get hurt or sick and I’ll be left powerless to help. So, I’m hauling a lifetime supply of ibuprofen and Benadryl and enough band aidsy to dress an amputation for days. Perhaps the hardest thing about being a mother is letting go of the illusion of control. Intellectually, I know that no amount of band aids can ever protect my child from life’s hurts, but there’s still a naive part of me that thinks I can.

But it’s more than just my summer back pack that have some excess items. I’ve picked up some mental souvenirs and junk long before I became a mother. Whether I’m on the road or at home, there are still some things I stubbornly guard, stashing in and sorting out. I know I’d be better off shedding most of it.

Fears, whether they are about my kids or long held insecurities, are not as quickly thrown away as expired prescriptions. Resentments and hurts are not as easy to loose as a $15snake bite kit. And awareness of my own mortality and loosing those I love is an anxiety which cannot be left behind on the vanity of a beach front cottage as nonchalantly as a container of face powder.

What if I was able to completely let go of it all? What if I could unburden my mind of the baggage?

Sounds like more than a 9 week journey, but maybe a little bit could be started now, today, in Belize or the next town. Or the next. Perhaps every time I drop my pack off my back this summer, I commit to making a conscientious effort to remember that it’s time to let go. Time to forgive. Time to see that what I haul around in life’s backpack needn’t be a life sentence of burdens, snakes and shiny faces be damned.

Scrap the Satin and Tulle: Why your wedding day is probably NOT going to be the best day of your life.

[Editor’s note:  While this posting is not directly related to the odyssey of summer 2013, it is a reminder that as we travel through life, we’re better off if we find joy in the journey.]

Ah, June. The magical month that kicks off the nuptial season. Truth be told, I’m actually so beyond the wedding season of life that I’ve even passed the baby shower cluster, quickly approaching the “first born high school graduation onslaught.” Nevertheless, though I find weddings just plain fun, too often for the bride, it can be a day of grand disappointment wrought from unrealistic expectations.

My wedding day–the 'kick-off' for the best days of my life.

My wedding day–the ‘kick-off’ for the best days of my life.


We’ve all heard horror stories of weddings gone awry–raging bridezillas, meddling mothers, overbearing mothers-in-law. While all these things might be simple annoyances on any other day, they reach fiasco proportions on one’s wedding day, tarnishing the “this is the happiest day of my life” image that so many brides feel to be their right and privilege. How do things become so warped, how do nerves become so raw, and how do otherwise rational women morph into raging lunatics?

It’s called conditioning.

It’s because we as women, from the time we get our first Bride Barbie, dream of the moment when we will be belle of the ball, queen of our own prom, princess for our Prince Charming. So we spend hours planning for our wedding day. Savings, which could perhaps be better spent toward a down payment on a house, are instead invested in creating an unforgettable moment in time.

Unfortunately, this obsessive preparedness for a single day often curtails appropriate preparation for the emotional, financial, spiritual, and just plain logistical parameters of marriage—simple questions are left unresolved. How many hours of TV is OK? Will we hire a housekeeper? Whose family will we spend holidays with? To unmarried couples, these seem like small issues. But as anyone married for more than a few hours knows, these seemingly minor concerns can quickly balloon into large issues. These questions are much easier settled, or at least carefully discussed, before couples exchange vows. But premarital counseling, if couples participate in it at all, is often just one more item to check off the ‘to do’ list and usually completed in a few hours.

I don’t think I’m being unnecessarily alarmist to suggest that most brides spend more time shopping for their dresses than they do participating in premarital counseling or practical planning for the realities of married life. And even though its effectiveness is backed by empirical and anecdotal evidence, counseling is often neglected completely or conducted with someone who may have mediocre training or experience.

A friend of mine who was married in Colorado less than two years ago recalls her disappointing premarital counseling. The facilitator scoffed at her concerns about their credit card debt—instead telling her to focus on the strengths in her relationships with her fiancé. Needless to say, the couple is now in the unfortunate situation of being maxed out on their credit cards, and money is a huge issue in the marriage, erasing their ability to focus on the “strengths” of their relationship.

So how many brides actually end up with that ‘happy ever after’ vision they have in their heads? Very few. We all know the divorce statistics in this country. And despite all the work, the wedding day is hardly ever perfect. I’ve been to two weddings where the brides had such big arguments with their future husbands on the day of the big event that they told me later they seriously considered scrapping the walk down the aisle.

In the movies, jittery brides and grooms ditch their intendeds at the altar all the time, but in real life, couples would rather take a chance and spare embarrassment before friends and family, knowing they can get a no-fault divorce later if it just ‘doesn’t work out.’ By taking this lackadaisical view, we are scoffing at the institution of marriage.

So if the day’s not going to be perfect, and the marriage is inevitably going to be more work than you bargained for, here’s what you disillusioned women who’ve tied the knot need to know, along with you soon-to-be brides crash dieting and waking in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. over concerns about the hue of ribbon in the toss-away garter.

First of all, your wedding day is no longer about you and your spouse becoming one beautiful and perfectly harmonized partnership for all eternity.

Instead, here’s what a wedding has become: a wedding is a party for your parents, their friends, and your friends. It’s a multi-billion dollar business. It’s a time to impress. It’s so your niece can be the flower girl in a frilly dress. And your nephew will change out of his soccer jersey for a few hours. It’s so your parents have a formal picture of everyone together. It’s a day that you are giving to honor your parents because you know it would break your mother’s heart if you eloped. It’s a day that recognizes that as much of a liberated woman as you have become, you will still give a nod to tradition and let your father walk you down the aisle.

These elements are all important to your family and to you and your future spouse for varied and often complicated reasons. And I’m all for weddings, and flowers, and cake, and pink Chuck Taylors peeking out from under a pile of silk and tulle. The problem arises when we expend all our energy trying to create the “best day of our life.”

Brides, when anyone tells you that your wedding day will be the best day of your life, examine their motives. More likely than not, it’s an unmarried bridesmaid or a vendor trying to upsell you a dress that’s too expensive and requires $400 foundation garments to make it all hold together or is trying to convince you to upgrade the menu to include a caviar appetizer.

The Perfect Day myth is an emotional and fiscal crime setting up brides for heartbreaking disappointment. Instead of spending months preparing for a single day, engaged couples need to invest their time and energy in preparing for a lifetime together.

And that lifetime, if prepared for properly, could be full of many “Best Days.”

Here’s what I’ve found after 15 years of marriage, acknowledging the stark reality that I’ve threatened to leave my husband at least as many times . I still love him like crazy. I admire him and appreciate him more than I did on our wedding day. I wonder on a regular basis how it was that I got him (and why he sticks around). My life as it is today is certainly not the result of my feeble efforts, luck, or some twisted favoritism people refer to as being ‘blessed.’ It’s been the result of a lot of work and forbearance.

Maybe it’s that I knew from the outset that plenty of perfect $45,000 wedding days end in divorce while plenty of potluck picnic shelter events garner years of contentment.

I did have a beautiful wedding day, but it was by no means the highlight of my life. It was merely the kick-off. Here’s how my wedding day stacks up against the last 15 years: Our honeymoon in New Zealand was everything I dreamed of, but visions of my kids pole boating in the rain at Tuileries Gardens, hiking with my husband through the cool dark caverns that burst open to illuminate the library in Petra, sleeping under the almost blindingly bright stars in the dessert at Siwa, desperately hitchhiking for the first time in a blizzard in Iceland, breathing in the timeless dust at the Wailing Wall as I felt my husband’s hand resting on my back, and reclining against my suitcase on a rocky beach, exhausted and waiting with my kids for the next train in Italy all compete for “best of my life” moments when my husband and I reminisce.

Though I will never forget seeing my husband’s face at the front of the church as I shakily held my father’s arm as he walked me down the aisle, recalling the first moment my daughter’s round little arms reached for me is a memory that conjures up deeper emotions.

I’ll also have to admit that although there was no videographer to capture the moment, the promise of life imparted when I heard my son say “Mama” for the first time still outranks how I felt when I heard my husband promise, “I do.”

In fact, even my husband saying I looked beautiful on our wedding day doesn’t mean as much as when he casually remarked a few months ago, as I was folding laundry while wearing yoga pants, that he thinks I look better than I did when he met me.

And then there was a Saturday last month when my entire family, kids included, worked to clean the house while we alternately listened to Taylor Swift and Joe Jackson. That day was better than my wedding day. We did some yard work and got a dozen donuts. I think we played a game that afternoon, but I don’t really even remember. We just hung out. We were a family. Jorge probably paid some bills, and I may have threatened the kids once or twice to stop bickering or I’d dock their allowance. We put the kids to bed early, letting them sleep in our room. All four of us rested there together, and most likely Jorge was snoring before the kids were asleep. When they were good and asleep, I nudged him awake, and we slipped out of the bedroom to the sofa. I rested my head on his chest, without a thought that this had been the best day of my life. Instead, I dozed off with the secure promise of knowing that there would be many more, just like this.

Yeah, I think that was the best day of my life.

And it didn’t cost much. And it will happen again and again. And there weren’t months of anxiety or planning, and my husband didn’t need to buy me diamonds, or make brunch plans, and I didn’t have to go on a crash diet, or worry that my eyebrows were not perfectly shaped or that I had a blemish on my cheek. I didn’t worry about a menu or linen colors or a perfectly clean house. I just woke up and went to bed, but I did it with the best people in my life.

That’s why we have weddings for a day, but live marriages for a lifetime.

 Originally posted at http://www.deborahhuso.com/?p=1475

An adventure is…

An adventure is misery and discomfort relived in the safety of reminiscence.–Marco Polo

Looking back on all of this, I hope the kids think it is has been an adventure. I sometimes fear we are only creating therapy fodder.

We leave for 10 weeks on June 22, 2013. Five days from now. Between now and then, we’ll have a Spring Concert (complete with 3rd grade recorder chorus), 5th grade promotion (for which I still need to hang 91 photo posters of the ‘promotees’), awards ceremony, dance dress rehearsal and recital, two end of year celebrations, and a dog, turtle, four zebra fish and one beta fish to find homes for (animals are given as summer ‘loaners’ with the option to renegotiate in the fall). Of course, we’ll need to pack and get the house prepared for our absence.

This summer will be not include sleep-away camp, lazy afternoons by the pool, long bike rides, tennis lessons, campouts or sleep overs.

Instead, we’ll have nine weeks in Central America and one week in Florida. Nine weeks feels like a long time. I’ll be alone with two kids for four of those weeks as we wind our way down Central America, traveling from Belize to Panama.

Before we started planning this trip, I don’t think I could have even recalled all of the countries in Central America. Now as we plan the itinerary, study the map, decide between this city and that, each country is becoming more than an amorphous colored splotch on the map.

I’m nervous and sleepless and edgy and worried. I woke in a cold sweat the other night thinking that everything I need for 10 weeks needs to fit in a 35 pound pack. But, it’s more than just leaving the comforts of home. I’m worried that we’ll get lost or kidnapped or killed. I’m sure our packs will be too heavy and I’ll probably gain 15 pounds (it’s happened before on these summer trips). We’ll likely encounter spiders and dirty busses and bed bugs and get caught in rainstorms. We’ll freeze on over-air-conditioned buses, and I’m sure there will be lots of grumbling about being hot. No doubt someone will get sick, and I have limited knowledge about how or when to use the myriad of prescriptions we are hauling around with us. There will be tears from overtiredness, silly fights from nerves. The kids will make me promise to never, ever take them on a trip this long again, as I promise at some point every summer.

But we’ll also meet unforgettable people and hear their stories. From these chance encounters, we’ll briefly weave our lives’ threads with others. We’ll forever change our perspectives on life and love and family and politics and God and right & wrong. We will stretch and grow and change.

We’ll create family memories that only we will share. Intimacies and inside jokes and stories-turned-legends which we will relive again and again with each other as the years pass. These shared adventures and hardships and laughs will bind us together, if not for the mere need to relive a time in life when we were together and life felt like a winding road ahead of each of us. And as the years pass, and life gets more complicated for the kids, and Jorge and I lapse into the forgetfulness of the years, we’ll return to these memories. And in that safety of reminiscence, we will find each other again and relive the adventure.

(c) Not At Home Mom 2013. All Rights Reserved